Real Scientists is in Uppsala, Sweden with Dr Matthew Lacey (@mjlacey), a researcher specializing in electrochemistry at the Ångström Advanced Battery Centre. We chatted with Matt about science, life, and batteries.
So lithium batteries! How did you get into this area of research?
I ended up in my current field (lithium batteries) by pure luck, if I’m honest. For my first research project at university I was assigned to my fourth choice of supervisor – the project on offer was on artificial muscles based on polymer electrolytes. However, my supervisor told me he didn’t really do any research on that topic anymore and gave me a project on electrode materials for Li-ion batteries instead. I had no idea about the chemistry of batteries up to that point, but I really liked it – and ended up doing my PhD in the same group. Battery science is fantastically interdisciplinary, when you really get into it you realise it needs expertise in very diverse branches of chemistry, as well as physics and engineering. The same goes for the branch I specialise in, which is electrochemistry. There’s always something to learn, which is what keeps me going. It also doesn’t hurt that batteries have become a hot topic in the last few years…
Before working with your supervisor, was a career research on your radar?
I was always interested in science as far back as I can remember, and I always loved learning how the world around us is put together and how it works (still do). I always liked Chemistry best, particularly on a practical level – and I was lucky enough to have teachers at school who were great at passing on their passion for it. Probably it was always inevitable that I become a scientist.
Back to your current work, what’s involved in your research?
For the most part, my work is about understanding how different sorts of lithium batteries degrade over time. As an electrochemist, I look to design experiments which are based on passing current through batteries, or electrochemical cells based on their materials, and to analyse how they respond so I can learn about their behaviour. Most of my work in recent years has revolved around designing experiments to study the function of different materials in batteries, as well as what factors control what they are capable of in terms of storing energy and delivering power, and how this capability is gradually lost over time. Batteries are messy, messy devices, so it is hard to design experiments which give you clear information about many of the processes which are occurring in the device.
What motivates you about your work?
It’s thankfully rather easy nowadays to motivate my research. We rely on batteries in so many different ways – lithium-ion batteries, of course, power almost all portable electronics, as well as power tools, electric vehicles, and more. Most of us know the frustration of our phone not lasting until the end of the day, and many of us would be put off buying an electric car because of worries about its range, charging time, lifetime, not to mention cost. The technology still needs to improve a lot for it to be truly capable of making the internal combustion engine obsolete.
I’ve recently started working for an organisation called the Swedish Electromobility Centre (SEC), which is a large network for Swedish universities and companies working with electric vehicles. Part of my work is to organise events such as workshops for the Energy Storage branch of the SEC, which means I get to meet people working on different aspects of electric vehicles, learn about what they’re interested in and how to put together events which bring together people with different skills, problems and interests.
What’s a perfect day off look like for you?
My ideal day off would start with a bit of relaxing and reading, then some hiking out in the forest, taking some photos, then cooking a good dinner, some time in a searing hot sauna, and finally a glass of whisky in front of the fire!
Matt Lacey, welcome to Real Scientists!